Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What Does Diversity in Book Publishing Mean To You?

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What Does Diversity in Book Publishing Mean To You?

In the literary scene and demographic that I occupy (one that is not old or homogenous but is digitally-inspired) there has been great buzz — accompanied by RTs, re-posts and Facebook debates — over Walter Dean Myers’ spread in the New York Times. The story spelled out some startling, but not altogether surprising facts, about diversity in children’s books. “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.”

If you don’t have children yourself, aren’t really around diverse groups of children, don’t dabble in the publishing world, do not live in America or do not come from a racialized community, these findings might not feel like that big of a deal, or even land on your radar. But if you do fit into any of these categories, this data hit like a ton of bricks. Or like a Los Angeles-Clippers-owner-Donald-Sterling diatribe (in late April, Sterling, the owner of a pro basketball team where 12 out of the 14 players are black, reportedly told his bi-racial black girlfriend V. Stiviano that “it bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people”). Honestly, it is truly a privilege to not be able to think about race, in a world where race matters. And the publishing world does not sit on a separate island.

For example, when you are a parent of a black child, like I am, and you can see that few characters of your own son's complexion show up in the children books they are given at school, you have to go on all kinds of crazy literary hunts to find titles that are more inclusive. If you don’t, your child might start to wonder why their own characterizations or narratives don’t really matter in this world — or in Parkdale. While growing up in Toronto, despite the diverse demographic realities around me, I too would often struggle to find black characters that looked like me in the books I was also handed in school. And when you are in public and middle school and your brain and body are forming, and you feel virtually invisible, it feels much worse than any stats can report. So my family’s strategy involved picking up books in New York where there were a cornucopia of titles where the authors and/or characters in the books were either black or brown. Then when we arrived back home, I would head down to the Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood in Toronto to a specialty bookstore called Third World Books — owned by the late Gwendolyn and Leonard Johnston — that carried all kinds of books with titles that carried black protagonists and/or characters, written by black authors.

As I got older and started writing as a profession, I began to see the obstacles writers of my race and ilk face — being told that there is no marketplace for hip hop books, one agent saying she couldn’t connect with my subject, who just happened to be one of the biggest TV celebrities in Canada at the time — I had to begin to tell burgeoning black writers the truth. And that is to never underestimate the continuing role that race plays in the publishing industry. Certainly, there is no magic red pill solution to immediately end the lack of diversity and subtle racism that plagues the industry here. But I truly do believe that the best panacea to cure this business’ ills is to have more black and/or racialized community members, with progressive sensibilities, working in decision-making positions, as agents, editors, publishers and festival owners. Much more attention in Toronto needs to be paid to the publishing industry’s racial division of labour. I am conducting some preliminary research in this area as I type, and my early findings are even more earth shattering than the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin’s study. Stay tuned for the results.

That being said, one doesn’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see that the publishing industry in Toronto feels a lot less inclusive than most other cultural industries. So I made a commitment to myself and the diverse communities who support me and buy my books, to “be the change”. And given that books have significant power to help shape our children’s understanding of the world, this can feel like scary times indeed. However, knowing what I know about the lack of diversity in the industry, it’s influenced the way I make my own business decisions. For example, when I was shopping pieces of my manuscript for my third title Hip Hop World, a book that had everything to do with black culture and diversity, with a dedicated youth target audience, a few publishers had expressed immediate interest. One of the publishers I met with seemed very awkward when it came to discussing issues related to hip hop culture and its inherent diversity (i.e. most of the major figures in the culture are black). When he started going down that “some of my best friends are black” trajectory, which I found to be incredibly insulting and patronizing, I moved on from that quickly, and ended up signing a deal with Groundwood Books, a subsidiary of House of Anansi.

The publisher at the time, Patsy Aldana, who founded the company, was born and raised in Guatemala and when she developed the company, one of her aims was to publish books by, for and about black and brown folk from Latin America, Africa and Asia, among other regions. Interestingly, she immediately got it. And while I never told her this at the time, she seemed to exhibit a lot more sensitivity and insight into the journey of a writer like myself who was born here but comes from strong Caribbean cultural stock, thinks global and who’s audience is organically multicultural. In my mind, she had already answered the question that Buzzfeed blogger Daniel José Older recently asked: “The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: ‘How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change.”

Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His latest book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His four other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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